The Next Generation of Leaders We Really Need in Detroit


Written by Linda Campbell

In addition to being on the BMP Project Team, Linda Campbell is a CSI fellow and has been a convener of the People’s Platform in Detroit.

This blog was originally posted by the Center for Social Inclusion.

Earlier this month, Crain’s Detroit published its annual list of “Twenty in their 20s”. This list of “rising star leaders” identifies young people who are certainly up and coming, and will undoubtedly have an impact on the city of Detroit and across the region. But this list emphasizes a particular kind of leadership – one that may not be most attuned to the most pressing challenges of our city’s most disadvantaged.

Crain’s bills itself as the “premier business news and information website,” so it is not surprising that the list mostly includes entrepreneurs (social and otherwise) and corporate decision-makers who are expected to jump-start our economy. Although Crain’s includes one member of the Detroit City Council, the overall focus on business overshadows the public sector leadership that Detroit needs as it emerges from both the rule of the emergency manager and municipal bankruptcy.

In addition to the arduous task of reclaiming our democracy, residents of the city are in desperate need of a new social contract between business, government and community. Detroit remains a place where 60% of our children under the age of five live in povertyunemployment hovers around 23%, and public supports are woefully inadequate. It is also a place where public dollars are invested in private enterprise. For instance, the new hockey arena, and the purchase of 150 acres of city land by a single wealthy businessman. The divide between the newcomer haves and long-time have-nots is growing. Of course social entrepreneurship and private enterprise are necessary elements  for the revitalization of Detroit, but the business and corporate world will not, and cannot, supplant the role of government in providing for the common good.

This is why Detroit needs to invest much more in public sector leadership. We need a rising generation of leaders who are committed to advancing effective social policy to address systemic issues. When it is possible for those interests to align with the business and corporate world, all the better, but we cannot count on private enterprise to fix the entrenched problems of poverty, racial inequality, and decades of disinvestment that are at the root of our city’s current woes.

To address the gap between the public and private sectors in leadership investment and development, I am proud to be working with other local leaders to found the Detroit Center for Community Advancement. DCCA has intentionally responded to the gap in leadership development by bringing together a cohort of diverse young people committed to a shared set of values around creating a more equal playing field for all Detroiters to succeed, and a common analysis of what it will take to address systemic failures in the city. They understand the importance of investing in public systems and intervening at the level of public policy. Most importantly, the young people involved in DCCA are focused on the common good and helping Detroit evolve into a more fair and just community.

Although DCCA is just getting started, we have been meeting a lot to learn together about the barriers that young Detroiters face today and the policy issues that can point the way to greater opportunity in the future. We are working in coalition with other groups on issues like increasing the minimum wage -a campaign that the legislature just this week scrambled to circumvent by passing a more modest (and frankly inadequate) change to the state’s minimum wage over the next four years. We also are working on supporting community land trusts to ensure that community assets are developed on behalf of the community (not just individual developers), and pushing for community benefit agreements that hold developers accountable to ensure the public tax investment in private development leads to broadly shared improvements for neighborhoods.

DCCA’s cohort of young leaders may never find themselves on a Crain’s list, but that is okay. What matters most is the impact of their work together with other public sector leaders to put the needs of Detroit’s struggling majority at the center of discussions about the city’s future.

While no one sector may be sufficient to overcome the many challenges Detroit faces, the only way for business, government and community to chart a new course for Detroit is to do so as equal partners. Supporting public sector leadership is a critical investment in creating a vibrant city where the benefits of growth are widely shared and lead to the general uplift of all Detroiters.

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